Retailers shortchanged frontline workers despite booming profits during pandemic

Denitsa Tsekova
·Reporter

Profits and stock prices of top retailers soared during the pandemic, but these companies largely didn’t pass the good fortune onto their frontline workers despite their jobs becoming more dangerous.

Frontline workers at 13 of the 20 top U.S. retail companies — including Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, among others — saw an average pay increase of just $1.11 an hour, or 10%, a new analysis by the Brookings Institution found. At the same time, those companies' profits increased 39% year over year, while their stock prices went up by an average of 33%.

“Compared to the windfall profits we've seen at the very big companies, by and large, their workers have seen very little of that actual profits,” Molly Kinder, a fellow at Brookings and author of the report, told Yahoo Money. “This is on top of wages that are often so low, they’re poverty wages. And these jobs, of course, are terribly risky.”

Many of the companies that were the least generous in compensating their workers made the biggest profits during the pandemic.

Companies like Amazon and Walmart — which saw profits increase 53% and 45% versus last year, respectively — gave an extra $1,369 ($0.95 per hour) and $900 ($0.63 per hour) respectively in the form of temporary wage increases and bonuses.

“Just those two companies alone earned an extra $10 billion compared to last year,” Kinder said. “Each company could have quadrupled the extra pay they gave to their workers and still made more profit compared to last year.”

A Walmart spokeswoman, Delia Garcia, emailed Yahoo Money, saying the retailer also awarded more than $1.3 billion in quarterly bonuses year-to-date to its workers and “increased pay for specific, skilled frontline hourly positions.” Amazon’s spokesperson Rachael Lighty said that along with their at least $15-per-hour wage they offer “full health benefits and 50% 401(k) match” as well as training and continuing education opportunities.

Dollar General spokeswoman Angela Petkovic said the company is planning more bonuses beyond the $73 million it has already paid out this year. Albertsons' spokesperson Christine Wilcox said in an email to Yahoo Money that the total cost of the pandemic compensation the company has given is $314 million and not $290 million as mentioned in the report.

No other company mentioned in the report responded on the record to Yahoo Money’s requests for comment.

‘Bold declarations of making philanthropic contributions around race’

One of the reasons the workers compensation increase was so low is that the hazard pay offered — around $2 an hour — only lasted into the summer. Most retail workers haven’t seen a hazard bonus in the last 130 days, even though the pandemic is more widespread and new cases continue to top records.

Taking away hazard pay especially hurt workers of color, women, and low-wage workers who are disproportionately represented among the frontline workforce at these big companies.

Joseph Alvarado picks up a package while making deliveries for Amazon during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Costa Mesa, California, U.S., March 23, 2020.      REUTERS/Alex Gallardo
Joseph Alvarado picks up a package while making deliveries for Amazon during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Costa Mesa, California, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

“We are in this moment of racial reckoning, where Amazon and Walmart have made these bold declarations of making philanthropic contributions around race,” Kinder said. “But when it comes to [Amazon’s] own workforce, which is disproportionately Black, they've taken away these important extra pay bonuses at a time where their workers are risking their lives.”

Amazon made a $10 million donation to organizations supporting social justice and improving the lives of Black Americans in June, followed by an $8.3 million donation in July. Walmart donated $100 million in June “to address systemic racism in society,” according to a company statement.

‘Most of the other companies ended them a long time ago’

After ending the temporary pay bumps, only three out of the 13 companies the report analyzed — Home Depot, Best Buy, and Target — increased their wages permanently.

A worker and a shopper are seen wearing masks at a Walmart store, in North Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S. July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
A worker and a shopper are seen wearing masks at a Walmart store, in North Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S. July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

In fact, Home Depot spent $1.7 billion on worker compensation, while it pocketed only $1.2 billion more in profit this year. That wasn’t the case for Amazon or Walmart. The amount of profit they kept was four times the amount they paid in worker compensation.

Companies including Lowe’s, Amazon, Walmart, and others paid numerous bonuses to their frontline employees.

“A lot of companies just once in a while, periodically provided a bonus,” Kinder said. “Only Lowe's recently has provided one-off bonuses. Most of the other companies ended them a long time ago.”

Amazon and Walmart’s last pandemic bonuses were in the summer. At the same time, Walmart resumed stock buybacks and, in the third quarter, the company reported $500 million in new share repurchases.

“If there was ever a time to question a company prioritizing their shareholders versus putting their workers first,” Kinder said, “it’s really the pandemic.”

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Denitsa is a writer for Yahoo Finance and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova.

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